The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia

The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia is a non-fiction book on heroin trafficking in Southeast Asia, which covers the period from World War II to the Vietnam War. Published in 1972, the book was the product of eighteen months of research and at least one trip to Laos by the principal author, Alfred W. McCoy.[1] McCoy wrote Politics of Heroin while seeking a PhD in Southeast Asian history at Yale University. Cathleen B. Read (a graduate student who spent time in the region during the war) and Leonard P. Adams II are also listed as co-authors.


Arguably, Politics of Heroin's most notable feature was its documentation of CIA complicity and aid to the Southeast Asian opium/heroin trade. Along with McCoy's Congressional testimony, this initially controversial thesis gained a degree of mainstream acceptance. The thesis of the book was that most of the world's heroin was produced in the Golden Triangle.

"It is transported in the planes, vehicles, and other conveyances supplied by the United States. The profit from the trade has been going into the pockets of some of our best friends in Southeast Asia. The charge concludes with the statement that the traffic is being carried on with the indifference if not the closed-eye compliance of some American officials, and there is no likelihood of its being shut down in the foreseeable future."[2]

In particular, Air America, covertly owned and operated by the CIA, was used to transport the illicit drugs. At the same time, the heroin supply was partially responsible for the perilous state of US Army morale in Vietnam. "By mid 1971 Army medical officers were estimating that about 10 to 15 percent of the lower-ranking enlisted men serving in Vietnam were heroin users."[3]

Having interviewed Maurice Belleux, former head of the French SDECE intelligence agency, McCoy also uncovered parts of the French Connection scheme used by the agency to finance all of its covert operations during the First Indochina War through control of the Indochina drug trade.[4]


The CIA reacted strongly to the book:"...high-ranking officials of the C.I.A have signed letters for publication to a newspaper and a magazine, granted a rare on-the-record interview at the agency's headquarters in McLean, Va." (the letters were to the Washington Star and were signed by William E. Colby and Paul C. Velte Jr.[5]);[6] the letter to Harper & Row (the book's publishers) on 5 July by CIA general counsel Lawrence R. Houston asked that they be given the galley proofs so that they could criticize errors and rebut unproven accusations[7] "We believe we could demonstrate to you that a considerable number of Mr. McCoy's claims about this agency's alleged involvement are totally false and without foundation, a number are distorted beyond recognition and none is based on convincing evidence."[6]) and take whatever legal action they felt necessary before the book's publication.

McCoy eventually overcame his initial reluctance to provide a copy to the CIA who then sent the promised list of criticisms and corrections. Harper & Row felt the material the CIA offered was extremely weak, but that the book was reasonably well sourced. (McCoy conducted "more than 250 interviews, some of them with past and present officials of the CIA He said that top-level South Vietnamese officials, including President Nguyen Van Thieu and Premier Tran Van Khiem, were specifically involved."; a vice-president and general counsel of Harper & Row said "We don't have any doubts about the book at all. We've had it reviewed by others and we're persuaded that the work is amply documented and scholarly."[6][8]) and not only published it, but published it two weeks before its scheduled release date. The third and expanded edition was published in 2003, more pointedly entitled The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade (ISBN 1-55652-483-8); the book has also been translated into nine languages[9]


See also


  1. Hersh 1972; also a book jacket description of the 2003 edition.
  2. Lask 192
  3. McCoy 1972, as quoted in Lask 1972.
  4. Alfred McCoy, 9 November 1991 interview, by Paul DeRienzo
  5. "a Washington-based official with Air America, a charter airline that flies missions for the CIA in Southeast Asia." Hersh 1972
  6. 1 2 3 Hersh 1972
  7. "C.I.A officials said they had reason to believe that Mr. McCoy's book contained many unwarranted, unproven and fallacious accusations. They acknowledged that the public stance in opposition to such allegations was a departure from the usual 'low profile' of the agency..." Hersh 1972.
  8. Lask 1972 also describes it as "a serious, sober, headline-shunning study with 63 pages of supporting notes, referring to a large number of personal interviews, newspaper accounts, previously published books, Congressional committee hearings, Government reports and United Nations documents. It is so filled with information that it will take a great deal more than mere dislike of its contents to demolish it."
  9. "But after three English editions and translation into nine foreign languages, this study is now regarded as the “classic” work on the global drug traffic (Revised Edition, New York, 2003)."


External links

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